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UC Berkeley joins effort to upgrade math instruction

By Jeffrey Obser, Daily Planet Staff
Monday November 05, 2001

The Berkeley Unified School District will be one of three testing grounds for a federally funded research program aimed at changing mathematics instruction and improving retention of minority students through the college years. 

The National Science Foundation this week awarded a five-year, $11.5 million “Diversity in Mathematics” grant to the UC Berkeley School of Education and two other universities.  

UC Berkeley professors and graduate students will use the grant for hands-on work in local schools and will focus on the critical late-middle-school and junior-high school years that culminate in algebra instruction, said Alan Schoenfeld, an education professor and co-leader of the effort with Rogers Hall. 

Algebra, Schoenfeld said, is normally the last course junior-high students are required to take – and too many leave mathematics by the wayside afterward because of the way it is currently taught. 

“If you look at the kind of curricula that today’s parents went through, the dropout rate from mathematics from ninth grade on was better than 50 percent per year,” he said. “The dropout rates for underrepresented minorities were much higher.” 

In practical terms, the grant is to focus on training and staff development for mathematics educators who are already dealing with issues of minority achievement gaps. 

“We’re going to use the Web to create a collection of annotated Web-based lessons in mathematics, so teachers can see what works and what doesn’t,” Schoenfeld said.  

The project will build on a somewhat controversial effort that has been underway among educational scholars for several years, he said. Amidst a chronic shortage of high school graduates who are “quantitatively literate,” educators have tried to reorient mathematics education away from rote problem-solving toward a more conceptual and interactive approach – “not just doing calculations and doing answers, but figuring out situations and writing up explanations of them,” Schoenfeld said. 

He termed the conflict between the old and new approaches “the math wars.” On one side have been those advocating the new approach, while their opponents have resisted for fear that children would fail to learn the basics.  

“Now the data are finally starting to come in, and they say that kids who take the new curricula do as well on basic skills as the kids on the old curricula did, and they learn a lot more about concepts and problem solving,” Schoenfeld said.  

The main obstacle now in carrying out the changes, he said, has been a lack of both theoretical and practical training on a large enough scale to make it possible to put them into practice. 

“We need to get enough people excited about math teaching so that we have the people who can do this,” he said. “We need to develop the knowledge that will help them to teach the rapidly changing demographic population that we have.” 

The push for improved and expanded math instruction comes at a time when two trends are putting a squeeze on the field: within the next decade, Schoenfeld said, more than half of the country’s math teachers will be eligible for retirement. At the same time, the demographic changes in California’s population have made it especially urgent to chip at the traditional dividing line between what he called the “two tracks” of high school. 

“There was really college prep, and then everybody else got out as fast as they could,” he said. “What’s happened over the past decade or so have been various attempts to both make math more enfranchising and to broaden the pool of students who can make their way through mathematics,” Schoenfeld said. 

“We are attempting to rebuild the infrastructure of mathematics education research, to include a focus on professional development for both new and practicing teachers around diversity issues such as language, social class, gender and ethnicity,” said Hall. 

The other participants in the grant are the University of Wisconsin at Madison, in partnership with the Madison Metropolitan School District, and the UCLA Graduate School of Education, which will work with Los Angeles Unified School District schools. 

The money is not intended for purely theoretical research, Schoenfeld said. 

“There’s no such thing as pure research anymore,” he said. “The idea is we get out in the schools and we see what’s happening.” 

“There will be new research, a new generation of researchers and student leaders, and a well-articulated model of how we have gone about this,” Hall said. 

Berkeley school district administrators could not be reached Friday for comment on the grant project.